CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 SCOTT B. SHAFER
Nomad Troop, 4th Squadron
3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment
Fort Hood, Texas
Dangling upside down over a pool, strapped to a litter and hanging by a belt — this wasn’t a situation anyone would have imagined when we reserved the Leadership Reaction Course for training.
The LRC can be a safety officer’s risk assessment nightmare. Obstacles with old boards, water, half a rope and a time limit are just some of the factors every LRC contains. Let’s face it; the course puts you under stress to complete a task you don’t have the proper equipment to do. In situations like this, there is always a chance someone is going to get injured. Sure, we do risk assessments, develop and implement controls and so forth. On a course like that, however, it’s impossible to cover all your bases. Murphy’s Law always applies.
On this day, the obstacle was two platforms separated by a pool of 4-foot-deep water and connected by an elevated wire. The goal was to move a person on a litter across the wire from one side to the other. It seemed like a simple enough task for five combat veterans.
The Soldiers made the decision to strap their “injured” comrade to the litter to minimize movement and prevent further injury. After all, that’s how we do it. Knowing that no one has the strength to hang from a wire and hold a litter with a person on it, they decided to use their belts. So, they took off their belts and strapped them to the litter and wire. The plan was to slide the Soldier and litter across the wire.
As a safety officer, I watched all this ingenuity happen before my eyes. I’d done the risk assessments, I had medics on hand and I believed in my guys. But for a split second, I thought to myself, “What if the belts don’t hold?” Then I looked at my belt and decided it was sturdy and had a good buckle. It should hold, right? Wrong!
They might have held if one of them had not been a Velcro belt. How could these experienced Soldiers not realize a Velcro belt wasn’t going to hold a 200-pound person? I believe it was the stress of the time limit that allowed them to overlook this detail. Well, halfway across, the Velcro gave way, leaving the injured Soldier dangling over the water while still strapped in the litter. Eventually, the weight became too much for the remaining belts to hold and the Soldier dropped head first into the water.
The Soldier sank to the bottom of the pool and his partners jumped in to save him. Before they could even get their shoelaces wet, the Soldier popped out of the water and shouted, “Freedom!” Everyone had a good laugh and we continued training.Lessons learned
In the end, the events were completed without a single injury and everyone had a new war story to tell. Still, I couldn’t help thinking, “What if this situation had gone wrong? What could have been done to prevent this close call?”
I could have reduced the risk by making the Soldiers stick to the plan. What good is having a plan if you don’t use it? For this obstacle, the Soldiers used unauthorized materials to construct their zip line litter transport. If they were made to stick to the materials provided, a Velcro belt would have not even been in the equation and the incident never would have happened.
There’s a saying that goes something like, “A bad decision is better than no decision.” That may not always be the case when it comes to safety. If these Soldiers had taken a moment to think their decision through, or the supervisors had stopped the training to correct their actions, they probably could have devised a better plan. Slowing down and using good judgment can complete a task faster with better results than making a rash decision and failing.
The bottom line is we need training and, sometimes, that training has risks. The team took a risk by using their belts, which weren’t part of the authorized equipment to complete the task. Why did I let it go? I don’t know and I can’t go back and change it. However, I can share my story and maybe prevent it from happening again.